WNUR’s Predictions: Northwestern vs. Illinois

The Wildcats and Illini battle for the Land of Lincoln hat and a bowl berth Saturday at Ryan Field. Who does the WNUR staff think will come away with the hat and the post-season game?

Illinois Fighting Illini (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) at Northwestern Wildcats (5-6, 3-4 Big Ten)

Game time is 11 AM central, you can watch on ESPNU or listen right here on wnursports.com.


Last year, the Wildcats retained the Land of Lincoln hat by knocking off Illinois in Champaign. Can the 'Cats make it three straight years with the hat? Photo credit: nusports.com.

Last year, the Wildcats retained the Land of Lincoln hat by knocking off Illinois in Champaign. Can the ‘Cats make it three straight years with the hat? Photo credit: nusports.com.

Zach Pereles (@zach_pereles) (4-4): Northwestern 23, Illinois 20
Northwestern is playing their best football of the season right now, and it’s due to Justin Jackson’s recent surge. Zack Oliver will fill in well for an injured Trevor Siemian, and Northwestern will ride Jackson’s big day to a victory on Senior Day.
Key Player: Zack Oliver. He played well last week, and Northwestern will need another solid performance from him this week. As long as he avoids the big mistake, the Cats should be able to win.

Austin Miller (@austin_james9006) (0-2): Illinois 13, Northwestern 9
Without their quarterback, Northwestern’s offense struggles to get anything going, Justin Jackson is able to run the ball for a TD, but the extra point is missed (one of these weeks I’m gonna predict a missed PAT and it’ll actually happen). Illinois is just as terrible on offense, but a costly mistake by Oliver gives the Illini a defensive score that seals the game and saves Tim Beckman’s job (not a bad thing).
Player to Watch: Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern: Jackson may be the only offensive threat for NU, he has to play well for Northwestern to have a chance.

Cameron Songer (@cameronsonger) (4-3): Illinois 16, Northwestern 14

Northwestern has appeared to be a much-improved team in the last two weeks, and Illinois doesn’t have the same quality of wins as Northwestern despite their equal 5-6 record. But Tim Beckman is coaching for his job at Illinois and will have his team fired up with some tricks and wrinkles.

Player to watch: Anthony Walker. The freshman linebacker has played at a high level this season. He’ll play a large role in neutralizing the Fighting Illini offense.

Ryan Fish (@ryanmfish) (4-5): Northwestern 24, Illinois 21
A heavy dose of Justin Jackson and another solid defensive effort should be enough to give Zach Oliver a win in his first collegiate start. Saturday is also Senior Day, so look for guys like Chi Chi Ariguzo, Kyle Prater and Treyvon Green to try to make an impact.
Player to watch: Zach Oliver. Yeah, I know this is an easy answer… but the offense was running smoothly through Trevor Siemian before his injury. Oliver needs to step up in an important game to make the ‘Cats bowl eligible, but also to make his case to be the starting quarterback for next season.

Ari Ross (@aross50) (4-6): Northwestern 16, Illinois 10
Without Trevor Siemian, the ‘Cats are going to have trouble putting up points. If Justin Jackson can get going, it’ll really open up the offense for Northwestern, but if not, putting up points will be a struggle for Zack Oliver and company. In the end, Northwestern’s just a better team and led by a stout defensive effort, the ‘Cats will pull out a defensive victory on Senior Day at Ryan Field. The ‘Cats force a few turnovers and put up just enough points to keep the Land of Lincoln trophy in Evanston.
Player to Watch: Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern. Without Siemian, as Jackson goes, Northwestern’s offense goes. And against the worst rush defense in the Big Ten, Jackson could have himself a day.

Sam Rudnick (@luhtammer) (0-3): Northwestern 24, Illinois 17
Northwestern will prevail in a contest that determines which mediocre big ten team becomes bowl eligible. At home, the ‘cats will ride on the emotion of hearing the news that senior quarterback Trevor Siemian tore his ACL against Purdue. Illinois does not bring much to the table defensively, and Northwestern should be able to handle the Illinois offense, even if QB Wes Lunt plays.
Player to Watch: Justin Jackson. As a phenomenal freshman year of running the ball all over big ten defenses nears the end, Jackson faces an Illinois defense that allows more than 250 rushing yards per game on average. Look for Jackson to have a huge day to cap off a huge season and lead Northwestern to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012.

Ben Goren (@beng412) (4-5): No Pick, Calling Game

A shame I can’t boost my record with my picks due to the fact I’m calling the game…
Player to Watch: Tim Beckman
He’s not technically a player, but he might think so, since the last time Beckman came to NU he was hit with two sideline violation penalties.  He may be coaching for his job, so expect the Illini to pull out all stops.

Michael Stern (@michaeljstern23) (3-8): Northwestern 28, Illinois 23

This game comes down to the red zone, where both these teams have struggled. Northwestern sits 13th in the Big Ten in red zone conversion percentage, ahead of only Illinois. I like the Wildcats to score touchdowns while the Illini settle for field goals. Also, Illinois has not won a road game yet this season.

Player to watch: Matt Alviti. Northwestern cannot afford to lose Zack Oliver to injury, so expect Alviti to be called upon (and make plays) in quarterback run situations.

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